Kinetic Sculpture: An Evolution

Energistically facilitate market positioning infrastructures vis-a-vis extensive niches. Competently fashion low-risk high-yield initiatives before cross-unit e-commerce. Uniquely disseminate maintainable scenarios and cross-unit action items. Interactively enhance front-end platforms via exceptional networks. Compellingly iterate clicks and-mortar niches with intuitive bandwidth.

By Rachael Anna

Due to its spinning nature, perhaps the earliest example of a contemporary kinetic sculpture is Marcel Duchamp’s 1913 piece ‘Bicycle Wheel’, one of his ‘readymades’ through which he proposed a move from what he called ‘retinal’ art, stimulating only the eyes, to a three dimensional art form which involves, intrigues, and questions the mind.

Figure 1Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel
But while Duchamp may have been one of earliest artists to create work which featured moving parts, kinetic sculpture takes its name from Russian artist Naum Gabo, who became particularly interested in how kinetic rhythms form and represent our perception of, and relationship with, space and time. His 1920 sculpture ‘Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave)’ was the first sculpture designed with movement at the heart of its nature; the piece is mechanically operated, and when activated a metal rod oscillates rapidly to form the illusion of a twisting, ephemeral shape before the observer—a wave that in fact represents a specific physics principle. Gabo was learned in both natural science and engineering, and it’s this combination that prompted the creation of Standing Wave, which was apparently originally created to demonstrate both physics principles and his constructivist ideology to his students in Russia. In his ‘Realistic Manifesto’ Gabo talks of the need to connect artistic expression with the changing political and industrial landscape, proposing a shift towards using technological advancement to more closely represent our relationship with space and time through art.

Figure 2 Nuam Gabo’s Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave)

Kinetic, means movement. So a kinetic sculpture may be any sculpture that can be said to move, that has been designed with movement as the focal point of its intended construction, or which has been designed for the purpose of inspiring particular responses to specific movements in its audience. It could also be work that gives the illusion of movement, and optical illusion paintings are often included in articles about kinetic work as, while not physically moving themselves, these paintings do give the impression of movement—tricking the mind into observing motion and so having a similarly immersive effect on its observer as a physically moving piece.

Figure 3 Enigma by Isia Leviant

Most kinetic sculptures are (often large) three-dimensional pieces whose movements are powered by small or large electric motors, natural energy such as wind or water, or manually by observers in the case of wind-up mechanisms; some may be constantly powered, whereas others may require activation. In each case the art’s motion creates a focal point that captures the mind, pulling it from normalcy and offering respite and time for meditation on a theme which may be apparent within the art, or may arise from the viewers own perception of the art. Much kinetic art highlights the relationship between scientific principles and natural rhythms, and aims to connect its viewers with this theme.
A breath of opportunity for contemplation is often part of the artists intention; the rhythmic motion of quietly revolving, twirling, or waving limbs offers a sense of calm continuity and captures attention while instilling peace. This is especially true for the pieces created here at Will Carr Sculptures; each has been designed and created following deep exploration into the natural world, wind cycles, biology, and patterns within nature. Their striking shapes and oscillating motions have borrowed from these patterns and have been carefully choreographed to prompt a sense of awe and connection with the natural environment.

Figure 4 Will Carr’s Fluidity

Following Gabo, in the 1930’s Alexander Calder brought a new kind of sculpture to the table. Calder’s kinetic sculptures are large mobiles – irregular shaped pieces of sheet metal joined to each other by lengths of wire, and suspended from the ceiling. These beautiful, perfectly balanced pieces move in response to air currents, or a slight touch, their segments curving gently and gracefully through and around each other. Calder’s mobiles and stabiles are an expression of the interlinked nature of the forces he could see at work in the world around us; they captured the minds of thousands of people and can be seen today in museums such at the Tate Modern in London, where they sway and twirl in response to the movement of viewers passing through the gallery.

Figure 5 Alexander Calder’s Antenna with Red and Blue Dots

Later, in the 1950’s, French-Hungarian artist Nicolas Schöffer created CYSP 1, a kinetic sculpture designed to combine art with cybernetics and spatiodynamics—the name CYSP comes from a combination of these words. The sculpture was designed with an ‘electronic brain’ through which it could be programmed with a number of responses to external stimuli, and it was fitted with a number of sensors and microphones enabling it to sense and respond to changes in its environment. It responded to variations in colour, light, and sound, causing it to move faster or slower across a space or to twirl the spinning plates attached to its body. In this way the audience was able to interact with the sculpture through clapping or through actions like changing the lighting; that its responses differed depending on what stimuli it encountered and in what order leant it an organic feel which captivated observers. It was part of several performances, including a ballet where it responded spatially to the movements of the dancers, and was the catalyst for a series of interactive sculptures which could perform together when placed alongside one another.

Figure 6 Nicolas Schöffer’s CYSP 1

Along a similarly mechanical vein Jean Tinguely created, in 1985, his Fata Morgana. Tinguely had long been interested in art that broke the boundaries of paint and canvas, and had been making sculptures out of whatever materials he could get his hands on since a young age.  Tinguely’s sculptures were built with moving mechanic parts: cogs and wheels and belts and motors, and so their movement was erratic. Unlike modern kinetic sculpture which takes a lot of its inspiration from nature and physics, his sculptures were concerned only with movement, and that movement was often irregular, erratic, and absurd due to the abnormality in shape and size of the sculptures moving parts. Some of his pieces were even designed to self-destruct following their performance.

Figure 7 Jean Tinguely’s Fata Morgana Méta-Harmonie IV

German artist of many mediums Rebecca Horn began her career experimenting with using material and art to extend the boundaries of the body in space before moving into mechanical kinetic sculpture in the 1980’s. Unlike Schöffer and Tinguely, Horn is less interested in mechanics for mechanics sake and is instead interested in how the movements created by her pieces can represent emotions, how their motion enables the inanimate objects to appear animate and to relate to each other and to viewers, and how much viewers project emotions onto the machines. Her sculptures are designed to act as ever-changing, stimulatory metaphors for themes of a mythical, historical, literary and spiritual nature. She’s used a wide range of items in her work, including feathers, violins, knives, funnels, and sculpted metal creations. Galerie Lelong Paris put together this video of her 2014 Exposition featuring several kinetic works which you can view here. She is still creating new pieces and her work is in exhibition in museums across Europe.

Figure 8 Rebecca Horn’s Der Sonnenseufzer, 2006

Kinetic sculpture is a great unity of science and art. These incredible pieces rely on motors, or on a deep understanding of mathematics, or of physics and how natural forces shape and affect their surroundings. The often sleek and minimalistic designs of their moving parts allow them to smoothly reflect these forces and motions, connecting observers with these invisible principles, with concepts, the natural world, and with themselves. We’ve only touched on a selection of the pioneering artists who pushed the development of kinetic sculpture throughout the 1900’s and into the modern day, but it’s easy to see how as the modern world moved into an age of knowledge, technology, and machines its artists were inspired to do the same and began pushing the boundaries of their form, uniting the advancements of the era with advancements in craft. These pieces invite us not just to view the world but to interact with it, engaging with underlying principles of nature and science even when we don’t know what they are, and reflecting the societal shift towards further interactionism—with technology, toys, games, and art. Think of 3D cinema, and virtual reality games, these are all about breaking down the wall between the viewer and the experience: it’s this same wall that kinetic sculpture invites us to step through.

Contemporary Welsh artist Ivan Black, who explains his pieces are a response to the interconnection of science, maths, and nature, is a good example of this.

Figure 8 Ivan Black’s Stealth

Figure 9 Anthony Howe’s Shidahiku

As is American artist Anthony Howe, another current kinetic sculptor who’s indoor and outdoor works take inspiration from nature’s plants, and many of which are designed to move in response to wind patterns.

Reference List

Art News. (no date) The Mobiles of Alexander Calder. Masterworks Fine Art Gallery. [Online] [Accessed June 2022]

Beate Reimann, S. (no date) How Rebecca Horn expanded the boundaries of the human body. Art Basel. [Online] [Accessed December 2022]

Black, I. (2022) Ivan Black Films Showcase. [Online] [Accessed December 2022]

Floe, H. (2016) Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave). TATE. [Online] [Accessed June 2022]

Franchetto, J. (2021) CYSP 1., Nicolas Schöffer, 1956. A Modern World. [Online] [Accessed December 2022]

HighMuseum. (2021) How Alexander Calder’s mobiles challenged the traditional understanding of sculpture. YouTube. [Online] [Accessed June 2022]

Howe, A. (2022) About. Anthony Howe. [Online] [Accessed December 2022]

Keats, J. (2019) In Head-To-Head Exhibitions, Artist Rebecca Horn Equips Machines To Fiddle With Human Emotions. Forbes. [Online] [Accessed December 2022]

Kelly, S. (no date) Rebecca Horn. Sean Kelly Gallery. [Online] [Accessed December 2022]

Kinetrika. (no date) A Brief History Of Kinetic Art. Kinetrika. [Online] [Accessed December 2022]

Mad Museum. (no date) The History of Kinetic Art. The MAD Museum. [Online] [Accessed December 2022],Edouard%20Manet%20and%20Edgar%20Degas.&text=The%201920’s%20through%20to%20the,the%20time%20being%20Alexander%20Calder.

Scha, R. (2012) Jean Tinguely: Machines Inutiles. Radical Art. [Online] [Accessed December 2022]

Stockwell, M. (2020) Bicycle Wheel (1913): The Story of Marcel Duchamp’s Pioneering Style. SINGULART Magazine. [Online] [Accessed June 2022]

The Art Story Contributors (2018) Kinetic Art Movement Overview and Analysis. The Art Story. [Online] [Accessed December 2022]

Vernissage TV. (2015) Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture / Tate Modern, London. YouTube. [Online] [Accessed June 2022]

Share your love